How Methodists welcomed the formerly enslaved Boston King
by Gary M. Best, January 2022
Born enslaved in c.1760 in North Carolina, Boston King worked first as a houseboy and then, from the age of nine, as a cattle and horse minder for his master, Richard Waring. When he was sixteen he was apprenticed to learn the skills to become a master carpenter. He says he was regularly severely beaten because the white apprentices would blame him for any lost tool or any material that went missing. He records two particularly severe beatings, one that incapacitated him for a fortnight and another that rendered him unfit for any work for three weeks. The latter, which resulted from false charges that he had stolen some nails, was made worse because he was tortured as well as flogged. King decided to risk attempting to escape from slavery when a white apprentice ‘borrowed’ a horse. King knew he would be blamed and he thought it likely he would be killed. He fled to Charlestown, which in May 1780 had fallen under the control of the English army in the American War of Independence. The English were promising freedom to any slave who supported them, although King soon found that liberty did not necessarily mean he received good treatment, especially as he had no tools to work as a carpenter:
They received me readily, and I began to feel the happiness, liberty, of which I knew nothing before, although I was grieved at first to be obliged to leave my friends and [live] among strangers. In this situation I was seized with the smallpox and suffered great hardships; for all the Blacks affected with that disease, were ordered to be carried a mile from the camp, lest the soldiers should be infected, and disabled from marching. This was a grievous circumstance to me and many others. We lay sometimes a whole day without anything to eat or drink.
He was saved by the kindness of Captain Grey, a soldier in the New York volunteers, a loyalist regiment from Nova Scotia serving with the British Army. Once he had recovered King marched as a Black Loyalist and he records in his memoirs how he undertook a dangerous mission through enemy lines in December 1780 to seek military reinforcements for the British troops who were surrounded at Nelson’s Ferry in South Carolina by superior American forces. He also refers in his memoirs to being able to repay Grey by tending to him when he was wounded. In 1781 King narrowly escaped re-enslavement when another captain called Lewes decided to desert the British army and join the American force. Lewes tried to take King with him as an asset to sell. He thought this would be payment for his time with the Volunteers. Fortunately King managed to escape from Lewes and find his way back to Grey, under whom he then served. It is not clear whether he fought at the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill in April 1781. By then it was clear the British could not hold South Carolina, even though it had contained more loyalists at the outset of the war than any other of the American colonies. King says he boarded a British man-of-war and, after engaging in the taking of an enemy ship in Chesapeake Bay, ended up in New York.
King married a fellow runaway, an African-American called Violet, and he tried to earn a living in New York as a carpenter. However, he found, as a black man, he was either ill-paid or not paid for his work because no court would accept a black man’s word over that of a white man. He therefore eventually decided to work on a pilot boat. Unfortunately this was seized by an American ship and so he found himself taken to be re-enslaved in Brunswick County in Virginia. He says he wanted to immediately try and escape but was deterred by seeing what had happened to a man who had tried to do that:
[He]was caught twelve miles off: They tied him to the tail of a horse, and in this manner brought him back to Brunswick. When I saw him, his feet were fastened in the stocks, and at night both his hands.
Fortunately he was purchased by a relatively kind American, but that did not prevent him yearning for his freedom
Sometimes I thought, if it was the will of God that I should be a slave, I was ready to resign myself to his will; but at other times I could not find the least desire to content myself in slavery.
King eventually seized a chance to make his bid for freedom and he managed to successfully make his way back to New York and his wife.
By the end of 1782 it had become clear that the British could not win the war. Rumours of the preliminary peace terms filled him and all his fellow African-Americans in New York with dread because they knew that the Americans would want to punish all the Black Loyalists by re-enslaving them:
This dreadful rumour filled us all with inexpressible anguish and terror, especially when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New York, or even dragging them out of their beds. Many of the slaves had very cruel masters, so that the thoughts of returning home with them embittered life to us. For some days we lost our appetite for food, and sleep departed from our eyes. The English had compassion upon us in the day of distress, and issued out a Proclamation, importing that all slaves should be free, who had taken refuge in the British lines.
This meant that he and Violet were among the 3,000 black Americans issued with certificates of freedom and taken by the British from New York (which had become a centre for fleeing Black Loyalists) to Shelburne in British-held Nova Scotia in August 1783. Each passenger had his or her name written in the ‘Book of Negroes’ together with a brief description. King was described as ‘a stout fellow’. One has only to recall recent events in Afghanistan to imagine what it must have been like for these families to escape before they faced punishment for assisting ‘the enemy’.
The arrival of so many black people in Shelburne caused some of the whites to riot, even though it had been agreed that the refugees would create a new settlement named Birchtown six miles away. We see, of course, the same kind of hostility directed towards refugees today. The Black Loyalists found themselves having to defend Birchtown from white raids and eventually troops had to be sent in. It was not a propitious start. However, the situation got worse. Each black family had been given a small plot of land on which to build a home and create a garden for growing food. They had been told that the resulting produce would be sufficient not only to feed the family but pay rent for the land they had been given and repay money borrowed to purchase seeds and the like. However, the African-Americans soon discovered the stony earth was too poor to sustain good crops, especially because of the short growing season, and, given their primitive homes, most of them found the climate unbearable during the winter months. The British promises about the utopia they would help create in Sierra Leone thus proved utterly false. The African-Americans had to seek additional work to meet their debts, but there was little available and what there was badly paid. Many out of desperation began selling themselves into indenture to white settlers, a form of slavery. Some indenture holders never ever paid their workers and some actually sold them as slaves to the West Indies.
In his memoirs King writes considerably about how religion sustained him in these terrible conditions. In the process he provides a full account of how his faith had varied in the course of his life after having been brought up in a family that was very religious. His father, who had been enslaved in Africa, read the Bible to him and insisted on daily prayer. For a time as a young man in what we would now call his early teens King had tried to live a Christian life, refraining from swearing or getting involved with bad company. However, he had then fallen away from faith, only turning to God in situations of crisis. Even though he attributed his escape from enslavement to God’s intervention, that did not prevent his religious ‘good resolutions’ vanishing away ‘like the morning dew’. However, in Nova Scotia his wife Violet was converted by hearing the preaching of a blind and disabled Methodist called Moses Wilkinson. King initially opposed her joining a Methodist society but then wished his own faith would re-awaken:
The joy and happiness which she now experienced, were too great to be concealed, and she was enabled to testify of the goodness and loving-kindness of the Lord, with such liveliness and power, that many were convinced by her testimony, and sincerely sought the Lord…I felt myself a miserable wretched sinner, so that I could not rest night or day.
Creating a religious revival among the black community in Nova Scotia had become an important priority for many Methodists at this time because Birchtown was the largest community of free black people outside Africa. Among those sent out to encourage that revival in 1784 was Freeborn Garrettson, one of the first American-born Methodist preachers, an outspoken abolitionist and known, because of his itinerant preaching, as the Methodist Paul Revere. For months King listened attentively to Garrettson but he oscillated between feeling he was saved and being full of ‘doubts and fears and evil reasonings’. He vividly depicts how on 5 January 1785 he finally committed himself into God’s hands:
When I considered how many offers of mercy I had abused from day to day, and how many convictions I had trifled away, I was astonished that the Lord had borne with me so long. I was at the same time truly thankful that he gave me a desire to return to him, and resolved by the grace of God to set out afresh for the kingdom of Heaven…I went into the garden at midnight, and kneeled down upon the snow, lifting up my hands, eyes, and heart to Heaven; and entreated the Lord, who had called me by his Holy Spirit out of ignorance and wickedness, that he would increase and strengthen my awakenings and desires, and impress my heart with the importance of eternal things; and that I might never find rest or peace again, till I found peace with him, and received a sign of his pardoning love. The Lord mercifully looked down upon me, and gave me such a sight of my fallen state that I plainly saw, without an interest in Christ, and an application of his atoning blood to my conscience, I should be lost to all eternity. This led me to a diligent use of all the means of Grace, and to forsake and renounce everything that I knew to be sinful.
For a couple of months there were still occasions when he faced doubt or lapsed in his behaviour, but on the first Sunday in March that changed:
The Lord again spoke to my heart, ‘Peace be unto thee’. All my doubts and fears vanished away: I saw, by faith, heaven opened to my view; and Christ and his holy angels rejoicing over me. I was now enabled to believe in the name of Jesus, and my soul was dissolved into love. Every thing appeared to me in a different light to what they did before; and loved every living creature upon the face of the earth. I could truly say, I was now become a new creature.
King, being human, still faced ‘a flood of temptations and evil reasonings’ but he now felt God was forgiving and renewing him whenever that happened. King agreed to become a preacher in Birchtown and Shelburne so others could come to know the transformational faith he had experienced. He says:
I could say with the Psalmist ‘the fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom’, for I had him always before my eyes, and in some measure walked in the light, as he is in the light. I found his ways were ways of pleasantness, and all his paths were peace.
In 1787 the area around Birchtown suffered from a severe famine and many settlers, both black and white, died. In his memoirs King provides a vivid account of the suffering. He regarded his own survival as evidence of God’s providence. He survived because he was able to build dories for the fishing industry and his main customer persuaded him to accompany a fishing expedition. Encouraged by Moses Wilkinson, King then commenced travelling further afield around Nova Scotia as a preacher and, in 1791, he was appointed by William Black, the presiding elder of Nova Scotia’s Methodists, to commence running a small Methodist society in Preston. He says that, after making an initial poor start, he found people responded well to his preaching, although he was embarrassed by his lack of learning. He felt this placed him at a disadvantage with the white Methodists, although they ‘encouraged me to use the talent which the Lord had entrusted [to] me’. He helped the society build a small Wesleyan chapel.
In 1792 the chapel was visited by John Clarkson, the brother of the famous abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. He had come as an ambassador for the Sierra Leone Company. This company was dedicated to creating a new ‘Province of Freedom’ in Sierra Leone for black people in Britain and Canada. Tired of the terrible conditions in Nova Scotia, the Preston black community all agreed to emigrate. King was enthusiastic because he felt it would enable him to take Christianity to Africa. He and Violet sailed on the ‘Eleanor’, one of fifteen ships leaving Nova Scotia for Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Sadly Violet King, like many, contracted a fever on arrival and died. Directly opposite to Freetown there was a big plantation called Bullam Shore which used African slaves. King obtained permission to go to the plantation and, with the help of a translator, preach to the Africans. He also was granted permission to open a school for their children so they could be taught to read. At first the Africans were unwilling to respond to either Christianity or to sending their children to the school. King did his best to persuade them that Christianity was not just a white man’s religion. He said through Christianity God was offering ‘a light to your feet, and a lantern to your paths’. He found he was more successful with the young than with the old:
The poor Africans appeared attentive to the exhortation although I laboured under the disadvantage of using an interpreter. My scholars soon increased from four to twenty; fifteen of whom continued with me five months. I taught them the Alphabet, and to spell words of two syllables; and likewise the Lord's-Prayer. And I found them as apt to learn as any children I have know. But with regard to the old people, I am doubtful whether they will ever abandon the evil traits in which they were educated, unless the Lord visits them in some extraordinary manner.
King thus became the first Methodist missionary in Africa. In 1793 William Dawes, the Governor of Sierra Leone, offered to send him to England with the support of the Sierra Leone Company so he could obtain an education that would better qualify him to teach.
Arriving in London in June 1794, Boston was invited to attend Wesley’s Chapel and warmly welcomed there. He says he was even permitted to preach at Snowsfield Chapel in Southwark, although he felt very inferior to white people because of his lack of education. The experience changed his attitude towards white people:
In the former part of my life I had suffered greatly from the cruelty and injustice of the whites, which induced me to look upon them, in general, as our enemies: And even after the Lord had manifested his forgiving mercy to me, I still felt at times an uneasy distrust and shyness towards them; but on that day the Lord removed all my prejudices; for which I bless his holy name.
In August he was sent to the New Room in Bristol and it was then arranged that he would attend as a student at Kingswood School. He spent two happy years there. Towards the end of his time he wrote his memoirs and concluded them by saying:
I have great cause to be thankful that I came to England for I am now fully convinced, that many of the white people, instead of being enemies and oppressors of us poor blacks, are our friends, and deliverers from slavery, as far as their ability and circumstances will admit. I have met with the most affectionate treatment from the Methodists…I did not believe upon the face of the earth a people [existed] so friendly and humane as I have proved them to be…. I pray God to reward them a thousand fold for all the favours they have shown to me in a strange land.
On his return King found that William Dawes had been replaced as Governor of Sierra Leone by Zachary Macaulay. Although a prominent abolitionist, Macaulay believed that white people were the superior race. He was therefore not happy at the actions of the Methodists because he thought they had encouraged King to believe that black people were not intrinsically inferior. King set himself the goal of primarily serving not black people who had come from Canada or Britain but the indigenous Africans. He left Freetown to serve in a Company coastal outpost about a hundred miles away so he could serve as a missionary to the Sherbro people. Today these now constitute just around 2% of the population of Sierra Leone but prior to European colonisation they were the most dominant ethnic group in the country. King and his second wife both died whilst working with the Sherbro in 1802, presumably from having contracted a disease. They left behind them three young children.
Boston King's story will soon be explored further by John Wesley's New Room, in partnership with a local arts group.
Above - Sculpture of Boston King - American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
Above - The Death of Major Peirson , painting by John Singleton Copley, 1783, featuring Black loyalists
Above - Replica of house built by African American in Nova Scotia
Above - Portrait of Freeborn Garrettson - public domain
Above - Portrait of John Clarkson - public domain
Above - Kingswood House and School